LANCASTER, OH – AUGUST 18: Football players from Lancaster High School line up to start running drills during football practice on August 18, 2020 in Lancaster, Ohio. Due to the continuing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many schools continue to hold practices with a plan for a limited season of 6 games total with restricted access to only coaches and relatives of players able to attend. (Photo by Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images)
Remember the thrill of getting ready for Friday night’s football game against your archrival? The pep rallies. A bonfire. Players wear their jerseys to school on game day. Storefronts in small towns are festooned in school colors. Occasionally, even a parade!
Then it’s almost game time. As the setting sun bathes the field in a golden hue, the bands enter, colorfully regaled and marching in time to the rattle and clicking of snare drums and the resonant thud of the bass. The aroma of concession stand popcorn mingles with that of freshly mown grass as the teams finish their warmups.
Fast forward to today’s high school games; in the student body section of the stands, there’s just a smattering. Way more empty seats than classmates. That’s even truer for the area reserved for the visiting team’s students across the way.
Things are unusually sedate in the parking lot, too. In past years, before this ancient annual grudge match that stirred the school pride of grandparents and maybe even great-grandparents of current students, there was usually tailgating outside the stadium in the hour or so leading up to kickoff.
Not tonight. Just a trickle of grim-faced people walking briskly to the gate and displaying tickets purchased online well in advance, rendering walk-up ticket sales obsolete. They pass through magnetometers or get wanded before they’re allowed to proceed through the gate, lest someone try to smuggle in a weapon.
Henrico County’s Hermitage and Highland Springs high schools announced such security protocols for all home football games that took effect last week. The new rules forbid anyone under age 18 — even students — from entering the game unaccompanied by an adult. All ticket sales are online and none will be sold after noon on game day. They forbid gathering and loitering before or after the games in parking areas.
That’s what we’ve come to in an era of escalating gratuitous violence and bloodshed that now threatens some of the events we hold dearest and that have long bonded our communities.
Now, excess school pride might boil over and get settled with fistfights or, worse, gunfire. A disagreement over a referee’s questionable call might require postgame police escorts for the officiating crew. A callous remark about a player’s performance or a majorette may end up with one person departing the stadium in an ambulance and another leaving in handcuffs. Moms and dads intrude onto fields of play to verbally — sometimes physically — accost youth sports coaches and officials as their children watch.
What the hell?
It’s not as though we couldn’t see it coming with the steady breakdown of civility in society, even before the pandemic. We are a society that increasingly assumes license to act out its bloodiest impulses. Then COVID-19 disrupted life as we knew it and demolished the remaining moral guardrails we all had respected as part of life in a civilized society.
One measure of the problem is reflected in a nationwide study of bodies that sanction high school sports and other interscholastic competitions. A 50-state survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations found that about 50,000 sports officials had quit in the past three years. Part, but not all, of the blame went to oratorical and actual abuse and threats they endure from fans, snarling with rage and unable to control themselves.
In Virginia, the problem became so acute that many prep football games — once as synonymous with Friday nights as church is with Sundays — are being scheduled for Thursday nights or Saturdays because there aren’t enough officials to field full seven-member crews for all games on one night of the week. Now, many amateur sports officials work multiple nights each week to cover all the games.
Threats and boorish fans are one thing. Bullets are another.
In just the past month, games were interrupted and ended early because of shootings near high school games in Utica, New York, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the Memphis suburb of Cordova in Tennessee, and Choctaw, Oklahoma. In Virginia, a game at Kempsville High School in Virginia Beach was suspended and then called prematurely when guns were fired in an adjacent neighborhood. Home games for Stafford High in Stafford County and Richmond’s Thomas Jefferson High have been canceled because of social media threats of violence with no reported plans to reschedule them.
While it’s heartbreaking, it should come as no surprise that wanton, life-threatening violence now stalks school sports arenas. In June, a gunman outside Huguenot’s graduation killed a graduate and another man. In January, a 6-year-old boy smuggled a gun from his home into his classroom, shot his first grade teacher in a Newport News elementary school and allegedly bragged about it afterward.
Security measures once considered draconian are becoming the new normal at what has always been among the safest public gatherings possible: Our children’s school events. Don’t blame school administrators. Lawless choices others have made left them no choice, and they are to be lauded for it.
It’s not clear how many schools have enacted safety protocols similar to those the two Henrico schools announced last week. There is no central repository for cataloging such protective initiatives, officials at the Virginia High School League and the Virginia Association of School Superintendents said.
Going forward, expect more of it, not less, said Scott Brabrand, who was superintendent of Virginia’s largest school district in Fairfax County before he became executive director of the VASS last year.
“This is going to become part of the landscape,” he said in an interview last week. “No event can be held now without putting the security lens on.”
Principals and superintendents are seeing the same increasing threats that police are. It’s a problem for which there are few, if any, remedial templates, so schools are having to innovate somewhat to protect students, parents, fans and officials at their events.
The new rules may feel burdensome, but the alternative is to surrender these treasured events and venerated traditions in the life of a school and its students. Spectators may not relish the changes, Brabrand said, “but they don’t want to be looking over their shoulders all the time to make sure they’re safe.”
“We don’t have an easy answer,” Brabrand said. “There just don’t seem to be barriers any more to when and where these things might happen.”
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Editor’s note: This column has been corrected to reflect that gunfire prematurely ended a game at Kempsville, not Green Run, High School.
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